There are two things about growing up in Hawaii and becoming a water activist that will no doubt have a profound impact on you for the rest of your life as regards to the ocean, if you happen to go someplace else. One is the warmth of the water. Nice clean warm water. It will spoil you for anything else in the world. The other thing which is much less subtle is…
I had started surfing in Hawaii when I was like 9 or 10. We had moved to Hawaii when I was 6 and my sister BJ was 13 or 14. It must have been when she was 17 when we went to Waikiki to take surfing lessons. We lived over on the windward side of Oahu in Kailua and nobody was surfing there. Nobody that I recall seeing. I spent a lot of time on the beach as a kid growing up. I don’t remember anybody surfing shorebreak. This was back in the late 50’s.
So, my sister and I went into Waikiki and took some surfing lessons. Yes, that’s right, the Waikiki Beachboys. You know it’s funny. I, and I assume, most people can remember some days in our past like we were there now. While others, huh? This was one of those days. Paddling out on this giant board on my knees and trying to turn the board around with my legs like egg beaters on both sides of the board. Looking at the beachboy man and seeing him looking out to sea. Him talking to me and saying, after we sat there for a while, ‘Okay, here comes one. When I say start paddling, you start paddling.’ Then the moment arrived. He said, ‘Okay, start paddling!’ Me there on my knees, pulling the water through my hands. Stroking. Stroking. Stroking, just like he had told me to do on the beach. Suddenly there was some kind of magic. The board was going by itself. The Beachboy saying, ‘Okay, you caught it. Stand up!’ I stood up. Just like he had taught me too. One foot in front of the other. I was riding. Wow! This is too cool. ‘Wow! This is too cool!’
Yep, I remember that moment like it was yesterday.
I don’t recall my sister ever going out again, but I was hooked. It wasn’t long until I was begging my parents for a surfboard. ‘I’ll mow the lawn three times a week!’ ‘I’ll even keep my room clean!’ ‘I’ll wash your car every week!’ They relented.
I and my friends were surfers. Maybe we were the first kids to start surfing shorebreak in Kailua. This was like 58, 59. My first surfboard was a Hobie balsa wood with a cool laminated single fin.
My first place to surf other than Hawaii was the year I graduated from High School, Puerto Rico, 1965. Some local kids there my age were just beginning. We went to a place called Rincon and another right in front of San Juan. The water and conditions in Puerto Rico were almost identical to Hawaii. Nice and warm.
In 1975 I moved to Samoa, Western Samoa. My wife, brand new son and I lived right outside Apia which is a story in itself –Chief Tupu. Oui!
We had just moved to Samoa and of course I had my surfboard. The very first weekend I was out surfing. Now we are going to get to the other thing. The other thing about growing up in Hawaii, other than the nice clean warm water.
Samoa, like Hawaii and Puerto Rico, had very nice warm water. But there was something else that I was going to discover.
On the South coast of Upolu as the road crosses over the island you can travel along the road and take a side road down to a place that was then called ‘Hideaway Inn’. It must have changed its name because I don’t find it now.
Anyways, I drive down this local road and come out onto the beach head. There is a reef that runs from the beach out to the surf line about a quarter of a mile out. Nice clean waves breaking into a channel. I study it for a while and decide to paddle out. From the beach the waves looked like four feet. As I got out, they were about 6 feet. I watched and took off on some easy waves on the shoulder before paddling into the deeper waves with more exciting and longer rides.
So there I am, sitting on my board in the afternoon about a quarter of a mile from the beach with this big extended reef in front of me. Perfectly clear water. The sun light playing under the clouds along the mountain ridge. Beautiful! I surfed and surfed. Then something changed. Something that I sure wish I had been paying more attention to, had I had experience with this sort of thing.
I catch a wave and as I end the ride I notice that there is a rather strong current going out over the reef from the shore line. I am watching this current and realize that there is a tide change and the tide has already dropped more than a foot or two or more. I am looking in and on this extended reef all along the coast; the current is like pouring off the reef. It is already so strong that I am not sure if I will be able to paddle against it to get all the way to the shore.
To give you an accurate description, I am sitting just at the end of the surf break that has a channel going in toward the coast. The water in the channel and on the reef is pouring off the quarter mile or so deep reef all along this coast. It is like looking at a river flowing down stream. But his ‘river’ and its current are as long as the island is long. I also noticed that the surf break I was now surfing was so shallow that to try to catch a wave and go in over the reef was impossible because the reef was now exposed as the waves came in. My only chance to get in was to paddle in through the channel. And this was where the current was the strongest. I went for it. I started paddling and trying to pace myself.
As I was trying to do this it was dawning on me that I wasn’t going anywhere, I saw a little island on the edge of the reef about three hundred or so yards away. It was not that I had not seen it before, but now I was looking for some help. I decided that this was my only course. So I paddled down to it and went in with a wave up to the rocky and coral shore of this tiny little island as it was sitting there on the edge of this extended reef. It was now in the later part of the afternoon. How long was I going to have to wait till the tide changed? Probably another 3 or 4 hours? Probably. Oh Good! Just how I wanted to spend one of my first nights in Samoa!
In Hawaii the tide changes are I think like two feet to two feet and a few inches at most. In Samoa the tide changes were like 6 feet. Six feet of water pouring off a quarter of a mile of coastal reef into the depths. Depths like deep blue! I had just ‘discovered’ the ‘other thing’ about growing up in Hawaii – very moderate tide changes.
There I was as the late afternoon became evening which then became night. Sitting with my surfboard on this little rocky coral islet a quarter of a mile from the coast. Planning how I was going to mark a course of paddling in, in the darkness of night when there was some water to paddle in over this reef as it was still emptying itself of its outgoing tide.
Great! Great, Great, Great!
I made a decision in the fading light to paddle back outside the reef to the channel and then go back in through the channel. I had come out that way and I made all the mental calculations about how far to paddle. I could make out land marks on the mountain ridge and as night fell, there were lights from the Hideaway Inn that I could use to navigate in through the channel.
I made myself as comfortable as possible and set up my surfboard on driftwood where I could lay down and rest for my night time paddle back down the coast outside the breakers which were still about 6 feet.
Later that night I figured that the tide was finally coming in as the water level was suddenly splashing on me where I had set my surfboard. It was a clear night and the stars were as bright as I had ever seen. I waited for a set of waves to come in and then I launched my surfboard off the islet and paddled hard out to make sure I was not going to get caught my the next set of waves.
This really sucked. So dark that you could just make out the outline of things against the night sky. In Samoa of all places. Listening to the waves and seeing the white water from the breakers, trying to judge by sound and this limited vision just how far I was outside the breakers. This really sucked. I had so much adrenaline flowing through my body that I can still feel it’s effect as I write this now. Shoot it is 2009 and that was in 1975.
Paddling down the coast and trying to line myself up with the mountain ridge, the sound of the waves inside of me, the two or three lights from the Hideaway and then ‘bump’! Shit! What was that? I had hit a drift wood. ‘God, please let me get in! I can’t handle this! What do you want me to do? I’ll do anything. Juz please let me make it to the beach! God, please...'
I was like a tape recorder playing this looped message to our creator all the way down the coast and in through the channel. I made it to the beach. I walked through the coconuts and palm frones to my pick up. Took out my wax in my pocket to get my key which was stuck in it. I opened the car and the lights came on. I stuck the key in the ignition and turned it to accessories. The radio clock came on: 10;18PM. This was another moment in time that has stuck to me.